My Dad was once a professional baseball player, playing in the triple A minor leagues until his eyesight failed him and he had to give it up. As such, baseball was a big deal in our family, and Dad was a supporter of the Birmingham Barons. In those days, the Barons played at Rickwood Field, a venue located in the western part of town and listed on the National Register of Historic Places as, believe it or not, Americas oldest baseball park. (I guess older ones have not survived the bulldozer).
Built in 1910 for a total cost of $75,000, it was built by the original team’s owner, Industrialist Rick Woodward and has served as the home park for the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Over the years the park changed hands several times, and is now owned by the City of Birmingham.
As a kid, Dad used to take his sons to games at Rickwood. I was not as big baseball fan as he and my older brothers, but I still remember those as good times with Dad, eating roasted peanuts, hot dogs and washing it all down with a Coca-Cola (Or was it an RC, not sure). In those days it was normal to go downtown for most everything. That was where the county seat was, all the department stores, and most other businesses you might need, other than groceries and pharmacies. Most white collar workers were housed downtown, and the only theaters in town, as well as the Boutwell Auditorium made downtown the community hub.
During the seventies, the area around Rickwood declined along with the steel industry that supported the people who lived there. It got so bad that people began to fear taking their kids to the area for games. Hoover, a fast growing city south of Birmingham made the Barons an offer to build them a new stadium, so in 1987 the Barons moved to a new facility, (Hoover Metropolitan Stadium) in the suburb of Hoover, for what were then sound business reasons. Rickwood went into decline after losing its main tenant. While the new stadium in Hoover was a big improvement over the run down Rickwood, being in the suburbs, it lost its connection to the community at large since it is only accessible by car. That meant that the poorer members of the area were effectively shut out of enjoying America’s greatest pastime if they did not have a ride of their own. The bus system never served Regions park.
Of course, the loss of the downtown Barons Baseball was not an isolated thing, but part of a larger trend. Offices, retail and many other businesses were relocating to the suburbs. Our community no longer had a single hub, but instead became a diffused sprawl with a weakened center and no strong focus.
Since 1992 the ballpark has been under the loving care of the Friends of Rickwood who are working hard to restore the facility to its former glory. They host frequent amateur, police and semi-pro games and open the gates to visitors who can walk in and explore the grandstands or run the bases. Unfortunately, the area around Rickwood continues to be in poor economic health. This fact, combined with the fact that the old stadium is just not up to modern standards means it is not suitable for a modern team. To bring baseball back to Birmingham required something new.
This week, the Barons decided to move back to downtown after the city promised them a brand new stadium near the newly complete Railroad Park. Modern sports teams being such a draw, it seems they no longer have to build their own stadiums. Apparently, the city made them a deal they can not refuse. The city hopes that the new stadium will attract other development to the area, and bring much needed tax revenue to the city. They are not alone in this “build it and they will come” mindset.
It has become increasingly common for baseball teams to come back to the urban scene. Since 1993, at least nineteen (19) minor league and 14 major league stadiums have been built in downtowns across the country, with even more scheduled over the next few years. These venues have succeeded as significant stimulators of new development and mean more life after dark downtown. Birmingham has decided it would be good to be a part of this trend, and the Barons agree.
At first glance it appears that Hoover’s loss is Birmingham’s gain, but this is short term thinking. even Hoover’s mayor has indicated as much. In the long run, Hoover will find other uses for Regions Park, and with all of the surrounding cities, will benefit from a stronger city core.
So, the new stadium will bring people back downtown again, not just to work there, but to spend their leisure time as well. Build it and they will come, I believe. As for the Barons, I wish them all the success possible as well. I might even become a regular patron myself. Perhaps while there, the other patrons and I will notice that there are other reasons to be there, like the Railroad park, the various museums and the old theater district. Perhaps developers will build restaurants and condos with views of the ball park and shops on the ground level for residents, office workers and baseball fans.
All of this will help make downtown a community hub once again. Of course, a new ball park is not a panacea in and of itself. There is still more that the city needs to do, like developing a more business friendly and timely permit process, and perhaps lower business taxation. But it is a great start. Eventually, with this project and others like it we can once again have a vibrant a downtown like we did when I was a kid. At least suburban kids will have a chance to what a real city looks like.